Drug policy in Switzerland 2005

Koeppel Hans, M.D. Swiss Physicians against Drugs,

Switzerland has one of the most liberalised drug policies not only in Europe, but in the whole world. That is why it is very interesting to have a look at what is going on in this country. Questions arise like: Which are the consequences of this liberal drug policy? How is the situation in Switzerland now? Did the liberal drug policy help to reduce drug-related problems? Did the heroin distribution program help the addicts to free themselves from drug dependence?  Which was the impact of this policy on the public opinion? How does police intervention and law enforcement work? Which are the problems the Swiss authorities and the politicians are involved in now?

The present situation concerning drug use among young people, drug use at parties and the heroin distribution can be seen as a direct consequence of the liberal drug policy.

Alcohol abuse and marijuana use grow at a staggering rate

Switzerland, together with England and Spain, has the highest rate of alcohol and drug use among people under twenty in Europe. This is the effect of the confusing and ambiguous message about drugs in the media and the lack of a clear message against drug use and the belittlement of the harmful effects of drugs.

Testing Ecstasy pills

The organisation ‘Rave and Eve’ tests pills for safety. After a one year break this organisation has restarted to test Ecstasy pills at youth parties. New and alarming is the fact that now a pharmacy is carrying out these tests. Every young person could bring Ecstasy pills, bought from a dealer, to be tested, in order to verify if there is no other dangerous substance in them.

Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT)

Heroin distribution began in 1993 and is still going on in Switzerland with about 1300 addicts in these, mostly, lifelong programs.

The number of patients has stabilised. The average age of the patients involved is 38.5; the oldest patient is 55 years old. There are facilities for heroin assisted treatments in 6 cities all over the country. Additionally, 18 000 addicts are in methadone programs.

The additional intake of alcohol, cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines is the most critical point of this ‘treatment’. 40 percent of the patients use cocaine regularly.

Many addicts return to methadone programs because they feel more independent. They can take the methadone dosage for a whole week with them and do not have to go twice a day to a distribution facility at a fixed time. Other addicts take their evening dosage of heroin home, but many of them inject it instead of swallowing the pill. As everybody can imagine, no patient has ever left this distribution program drug free. Most addicts are unable to work and, therefore, rely on social benefits.

No more scientific studies are being carried out or news circulated in the media. This fact might reveal that nobody wants to admit the real extent of the program’s failure.

Ritalin for cocaine addicts

Last year a ‘scientific’ project was started in which Ritalin is distributed to cocaine addicts. This scheme provides 64 people with daily dosages of Ritalin in the heroin based treatment facilities of Berne and Basel with the aim to reduce the patients’ daily consumption of cocaine. The results of this project will be evaluated in 2005.

Changes in Public Opinion

Drug problems are no longer present on the media as they were 10 years ago. Holding a referendum on heroin distribution, as it occurred in the Canton of Zurich last year, no longer sparks any political controversy. The Swiss are relieved not to see needle parks any longer as they did ten years ago, which does not mean that heroin distribution is successful as some people might tend to think. As time went by public opinion changed considerably.

The publications of SFA, an institution for prevention of alcohol problems, had years ago a really astonishing position concerning marijuana and other drugs. They were always on the side of the drug liberalising organisations and political parties supporting drug liberalisation.

Their recommendations for marijuana use were the following:

  1. Rule: Do not use marijuana if you feel uneasy.
  2. Rule: Never use marijuana in situations in which you need concentration and attention like when you are driving.
  3. Rule: To avoid a dependence on marijuana, do not use it too often and use every time only a little dosage.

At present, their position is different. They have recently published warnings on marijuana use. However, they have no clear position against drug use. Interestingly, last year the Health authorities launched a campaign against cigarette smoking with the same arguments we use against drugs.

An important fact influencing the ever-changing public opinion in Switzerland was the release of a paper from the Swiss Teachers’ Association in 2003. They reminded the population that the situation in the schools had changed dramatically due to the increase of students’ marihuana smoking. Teaching became increasingly more difficult because of discipline problems. They claimed that schools are not detoxification and recovery facilities for dizzy students. This Teachers’ Association, which some years before had welcomed a drug liberalizing policy, has realised in the meantime the sorrowing consequences of false tolerance.

Police interventions and law enforcement

Regarding police intervention, it can be said that when young people are found in the street with small amounts of drugs on, they have to pay a fine. Sometimes they are sent to a drug advice centre to be informed about the harmful effects of drugs. Mostly, the parents will be informed if these people are under age


So called alco-pops are drunk at parties in great amounts, often mixed with ecstasy and amphetamines. Last year the Swiss government raised the tax on this special form of alcoholic beverage to help to reduce its consumption. The measures taken are now showing the first positive effects. The amount of alco-pops sold last summer went down drastically.

Hemp shops have been closed all over the country

In many cities in the German and the Italian speaking part of Switzerland there have been drug raids in hemp shops and hemp planting areas. Most of the retailers were closed and the crops found were confiscated and burned.

In Basel the police closed 28 of 32 shops last year. The same happened in Berne and two years before in the Italian speaking Canton Tessin. The immense production of hemp plants, which was partly exported to the north of Italy, was confiscated and the persons responsible were charged with of drug producing and trafficking.

Driving under marijuana influence

From January 1st, 2005 Switzerland has had a law on drug use and driving. From now on there is zero tolerance policy for marijuana users when driving a car. Drivers have to undergo blood testing, if there is a suspicion of drug influence on driving. If drug concentration in the tested blood is more than 1.5 micrograms per millilitre, the licence is confiscated.

Hemp as food for cattle forbidden

To promote marijuana some planters had the idea to feed their cattle with hemp. After some tests which proved that THC was found in the milk, the Swiss authorities have forbidden to feed cattle with hemp in order to protect consumers.

Course of Political events

Last year, the rejection of a drug liberalising law proposal was a great victory. However, it was not a checkmate of the drug lobby, as some want to believe. Drug liberalisers are still active.

New referendum to legalize marihuana

As a reaction to the rejection of the law proposal, the drug promoting political parties, especially the Green one, have launched a new initiative for a referendum to legalize marijuana. They need the support of 100,000 voters. At the moment, they have collected about 70,000 signatures. But only 40,000 are proven signatures. The organisation has problems to engage helpers and they have great financial difficulties.

If this initiative is successful, the procedure of changing the law will start again. It will be in two or three years that the Swiss population will have to say yes or no to a new law proposal.

Proposal to distribute Cocaine

In June 2004 the Health Authorities organized a National drug conference, to which only drug liberalisers were invited. One group proposed distributing cocaine to the clients of heroin distribution programs, if they should have troubles with additional cocaine intakes. The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health did not oppose such a project, but did not lend support to it either.

New initiative of the parliamentary commission on social affairs and health

A group of members of parliament wants to launch a new proposal to change the law on drug use. Some members of this group want liberalisation but there are also forces to make the new law more restrictive, especially to forbid hemp production. They want a clear distinction between industrial hemp with 0.3 % of THC and the drug hemp, which will not be allowed to be produced anymore.

The representatives of the Green and left parties in this commission advocate for drug liberalisation, the Christian Democrats are again taking a strict position against any liberalisation of marijuana. Nobody dares to reactivate any proposal for liberalising other drugs, as it was discussed in the rejected law proposal.


The high rates of lifelong drug use and monthly drug use among people under age is a consequence of the permissive drug policy. Thus, the argument that the liberalisation of drug policy would reduce drug problems was proven wrong. The contrary happened as the figures now show.

Heroin distribution programs had no positive effects. They failed to help addicts to get away from drugs. Those who are not drug free had to undergo abstinence oriented treatment. Unfortunately, most patients left heroin programs went back to methadone programs and so wasted more years of their life to drug dependence.

However, drug liberalisers do not give up. Instead of changing the policy because it failed, they propose more of the same medicine i.e. not only to give addicts heroin, but also ritaline or cocaine, if drug patients are unable to stop cocaine intake. This new instance of administering more of the same but false medicine will fail too.

As a consequence of enlarged methadone programs and heroin distribution, many abstinence oriented drug rehabilitation centres had to be closed because of a lack of drug addicts who want to undergo stationary treatment.

Jet, some positive effects of heroin distribution on public opinion can be referred too. Now heroin is seen as a loser drug and fewer drug users start to take heroin. In this sense, heroin distribution has helped to deter young people from starting to use heroin.

The liberal drug policy has helped to make the scales fell from the eyes of many concerned citizens who hoped to help addicts by supporting heroin distribution.

Koeppel Hans, M.D. Swiss Physicians against Drugs,

Chair Scientific and Advisory Board of Eurad

Category: Drug News